Here we go again. The headlines are accurate, as far as they go.
- “Pope Francis Extends Priests’ Ability to Forgive Abortion”
Elisabetta Povoledo, The New York Times (November 21, 2016)
- “Pope Francis extends Catholic priests’ right to forgive abortion”
Tim Hume, Cristiana Moisescu, Lindsay Isaac; CNN (November 21, 2016)
I’m pretty sure we’ll see a replay of last year’s sound and fury over the Pope’s ‘changing stand on abortion,’ expressed in a letter dated September 1, 2015.1
The reality was nowhere near as horrific or hopeful as many folks apparently thought.
“…The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father….”
Pope Francis (September 1, 2015)1
“19 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”
That brings me to yesterday’s letter from Pope Francis:
- “Misericordia et misera”
Pope Francis, Apostolic letter (November 20, 2016)
(From w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20161120_misericordia-et-misera.pdf (November 21, 2016))
Pope Francis starts by explaining that misericordia et misera is a phrase Saint Augustine used when telling the story of Jesus’ meeting with the woman taken in adultery.
“…It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful or apt way of expressing the mystery of God’s love when it touches the sinner: ‘the two of them alone remained: mercy with misery’….”
(Pope Francis, Apostolic letter (November 20, 2016))
That seems reasonable to me, and it’s what the Catholic Church has been saying for two millennia. All that the Pope’s recent letter does is say that last year’s procedural change is still in effect:
“…Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary….”
(Pope Francis (November 20, 2016))
I’m pretty sure that folks who want the Catholic Church to recognize a “right” to that particular sort of murder will be as upset as others who enjoy watching sinners squirm. Maybe I’m being unfair.
Treating ‘those sinners’ with a measure of dignity may seem confusing to folks who feel that “sin” is doing something they either don’t like, or can’t do — and that “sinners” are disreputable folks who are thrown into Hell by a hypersensitive God.
Forgiving, and being forgiven, are important.
So is cleaning up the mess sin leaves.
Let’s say I hold up the local bank, then realize it was wrong, and say I’m sorry. Should I be forgiven?
As far as the Church is concerned, yes. I’d also be expected to give the money back, and cooperate with secular authorities in the trial and sentencing that follows. We call that sort of thing “reparation.” (Catechism, 1459–1460)
If I had killed an innocent person I couldn’t unkill the victim, of course. But forgiveness for murder and other serious sins has always been possible: what’s changed over the last two millennia has been details in the procedure. (Catechism, 1447)
I’ll talk more about positive law, rules we make up; and natural law,2 ethical principles woven into reality, another day.
Briefly, natural law hasn’t changed, and won’t.
Positive law changes, and must change, as we adapt it to changing circumstances.
Circumstances have been changing a lot over the last few centuries.
“Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures, the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.”
When positive law wanders away from natural law, there’s trouble: like the ‘outmoded morality’ some of my contemporaries didn’t like. We can’t go back to the ‘good old days,’ which is fine by me.
Genesis 1:27 says we’re made “in the divine image.” We are rational and therefore like God, made in the image and likeness of God; created with free will, masters over our actions. (Catechism, 1730–1825)
But what about killing not-innocent people?
Everybody: the chap who took ‘my’ parking space, whoever stole the parish Gospel book, everybody. No exceptions. “Love” isn’t “approval,” and I’ve said that before. (September 11, 2016)
Quite a few folks who believe killing babies and sick people is wrong are eager to have murderers killed.
The Church says that killing people who have done something very bad is allowed — if that is the only way to protect other folks. (Catechism, 2267)
I can imagine people on some remote island, for example, being forced to kill a serial murderer: because they do not have the resources to restrain and guard a killer. They would starve if everyone wasn’t out catching fish.
I do not think the United States is that poverty-stricken and desperate.
Killing a convicted murderer might satisfy an immediate desire for revenge, but would not restore the victim to life. It is also an irreversible punishment, which is embarrassing when the mistake is revealed. Not even the United States Supreme Court can unkill someone.
Sometimes a murderer will, given time, decide that killing an innocent person was wrong.
St. Maria Goretti’s killer, Alessandro Serenelli, deserved the death penalty. If he’d been killed, some folks might have congratulated themselves on their civic virtue: and Alessandro would not have had an opportunity to think about what he’d done.
Alessandro Serenelli eventually realized that he had done something very wrong.
Later, after he was released from prison, he met Maria Goretti’s mother: who forgave him. Her daughter had also done so before dying of her injuries. Allesandro later entered a monastery.
What Alessandro Sereni did was very bad.
But that was more than a hundred years ago, and happened a long way from where I live. Not hating him is, for me, fairly easy.
I can, and do, get very angry over assorted daft, destructive, and avoidable, injustices I read about or — much more infrequently — experience. Emotions, anger included, happen. What matters is how I handle them. (Catechism, 1762–1775)
And that’s another topic.
More about love, mercy, and getting a grip:
- “Mercy: Still Practicing”
(November 20, 2016)
- “Hating People: Not an Option”
(November 15, 2016)
- “Satan Didn’t Make Me Do It”
(November 13, 2016)
- “Sin, Original and Otherwise”
(November 6, 2016)
- “The Virtue Trap”
(October 23, 2016)
- Lettera del Santo Padre Francesco al Presidente del Pontificio Consiglio per la Promozione della Nuova Evangelizzazione all’approssimarsi del Giubileo Straordinario della Misericordia, 01.09.2015 — Testo in lingua italiana, francese, inglese, tedesca, spagnola, portoghese, polacca
(Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization at the approach of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, September 1, 2015 — Text in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish)
(From press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2015/09/01/0637/01386.html (September 5, 2015))
“…This ordination of reason is called law. In man’s free will, therefore, or in the moral necessity of our voluntary acts being in accordance with reason, lies the very root of the necessity of law. Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason; whereas the truth is that we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature. For, law is the guide of man’s actions; it turns him toward good by its rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments.
“Foremost in this office comes the natural law, which is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin. Nevertheless, all prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which our reason and liberty necessarily depend….”
(“Libertas,” Pope Leo XIII (June 20, 1888))
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1954–1960
Pope Leo XIII (June 20, 1888)
(From w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_20061888_libertas.html (September 5, 2015))